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Middle East Leaders Urge Bush to Act

April 03, 2001|ROBIN WRIGHT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Throughout the Middle East, a single question resonates amid the din of bullets and bombs: Where are the Americans?

After decades of U.S. mediation between Israel and its Arab neighbors, the Bush administration's decision to step back from the fray has produced a diplomatic vacuum and is contributing to the mounting death toll, worried regional leaders charge.

"It's turning into a region which is something like hell," lamented Turkish Foreign Minister Ismail Cem. "Children are being killed. There is no security. People are afraid to go out of their houses. People are afraid of their neighbors. Something has to be done."

On Monday, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak joined the roster of leaders from moderate states parading through Washington to plead with the Bush administration to play a more active role.

"I have great hopes that President Bush will do the maximum effort to lessen the tension and resume negotiations, which is vitally important," Mubarak told reporters in the Oval Office.

But over the last 10 weeks, Bush has stood firm in his decision to hold back until the violence that has racked the region has abated. But even if it does, he's made it clear that he doesn't intend to try to negotiate the details of a final settlement between Israel and the Palestinians, as the Clinton administration did.

"We can't force a peace," Bush said Monday. "We will use our prestige and influence as best we can to facilitate a peace."

In a news conference last week, Bush stressed that the Israelis and Palestinians must "find their own solutions to peace."

So far, the president has relied on telephone diplomacy, making almost two dozen calls to Mideast leaders since assuming office Jan. 20, according to the White House. The State Department, meanwhile, has eliminated the position of special U.S. envoy to the Middle East.

The U.S. goal now appears limited to trying to create conditions for peace. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell last week telephoned Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to deliver a message that the violence must stop.

Powell called Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Monday to discuss easing economic pressures on the Palestinians and showing restraint in dealing with the Palestinian intifada, or uprising, the State Department said.

On substance, Bush has preferred to defer to others, throwing the appeals of regional leaders back at them. The president called on Egypt and Jordan in particular to help defuse the tensions.

Egyptians Ask U.S. to Provide 'Road Map'

But regional leaders are telling the administration that only the United States has the clout to ease tensions so that negotiations can resume--and so the situation won't spiral out of control.

"What we need from the U.S. has always been the honest broker," Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr Moussa said after talks with Powell on Friday. "The situation has never been worse, and it could even deteriorate further."

Foreshadowing the message that Mubarak brought to the White House on Monday, Moussa said the Arab world and the broader Islamic world want Washington to draw up a "road map" with specific steps that would outline incentives for the two parties to return to the negotiating table.

Egypt is warning of the consequences if Washington holds back too long. "You have to care about the image of the United States at this very, very important moment," Moussa warned. Already, the European Union and Russia have begun to step in to fill the void, he noted.

Jordan is also concerned. The absence of the United States is a "disaster" that has reached the boiling point and could lead to a bigger crisis, said Marwan Muasher, the Jordanian ambassador to the U.S., previewing a message King Abdullah II is to deliver when he arrives in Washington this week to see congressional leaders. Next week, the king is to meet with the president.

Cem, the Turkish foreign minister, predicted a surge of radicalism that would put extra pressure on moderate governments, and not only in the Arab world.

U.S. analysts, too, are alarmed about what may lie ahead. "Without movement, we're going to face an increasing number of angry people who've lost patience with the absence of progress on peace, not to mention their own economic conditions," said Augustus Richard Norton, a Boston University political scientist.

Many U.S. analysts predict that the administration will eventually be forced to get involved. "One can understand the Bush desire to stay out of that swamp," Norton said. "But because of our military, diplomatic and economic support for Israel, we've become one of the critters in that swamp, and we can't avoid involvement."

Whatever the druthers of either a Republican or Democratic administration, the traditional rule of thumb in the Middle East is that events on the ground usually end up forcing the U.S. to take a greater role.

"Every single administration that has come to power believed it did not have to pay as much attention to Arab-Israeli issues but very quickly was forced to react to events and intervene more quickly than it originally planned," said Shibley Telhami, a Brookings Institution fellow and Mideast expert at the University of Maryland.

Clinton Took Similar Approach Early On

The Clinton administration took a similar approach when it came to office in 1993, Telhami said. But then Israel deported 415 Arabs to Lebanon and Norway brokered the Oslo peace accords.

"That quickly landed the Arab-Israeli conflict on the steps of the White House," Telhami said, "and from then on made it impossible for the Clinton administration to walk away."

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Times staff writer Tracy Wilkinson in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

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